This is part one of Lori Midson's interview with Jorel Pierce, executive chef of Euclid Hall. Part two of that interview will run in this space tomorrow.
"You can't write that! I'm not a pussy!" Jorel Pierce, the stove sultan who mans the burners at Euclid Hall, is recounting the summer he spent in England, working as a stage at a hoity-toity country hotel and restaurant that, upon his arrival, welcomed him with four naked Latvians lying side by side by side. "They screamed at me, so I had to sleep in the hallway, and I felt so alienated that I called my mom, crying. That's the part that you can't write," pleads Pierce, who eventually relents, adding that by the end of his stage, his naysayers -- the same guys who initially thought he was a "silly American idiot" -- were calling him Captain America.
Pierce, who worked the line at Rioja for nearly four years under chef Jennifer Jasinski (who also owns Euclid Hall and Bistro Vendôme with business partner Beth Gruitch), is arguably one of Denver's top rising-star chefs. He's confident, brilliantly innovative and, at 26, one of the city's youngest kitchen kingpins to pioneer a line that turns out what may very well be the most ambitiously crafted menu in Denver.
Which speaks volumes about a kid who spent three years working at Applebee's -- and appreciates every second of his tenure there. "I loved working at Applebee's. It was a great job that taught me awesome line skills, and a great middle step, where massive volume, down-and-dirty hard work and a lightning-fast pace was all part of the job," says Pierce, whose first gig as a line monkey was throwing pies at Dino's, an iconic Italian restaurant in Lakewood.
Still, Pierce's first solid meal as a baby wasn't a burger, macaroni and cheese or a grilled cheese sandwich, but raw fish from Sushi Den: "Right off the bottle, I was at Sushi Den, eating steamed sushi rice and toro tartare."
Years later, he was on the fast track to a culinary degree at the Denver campus of Johnson & Wales. "I knew that I loved the restaurant pace and that I loved food and the kitchen environment, and I wanted to work on my finesse and technique, so I went to culinary school to learn as much as I could," says Pierce. But culinary school, he insists, wasn't nearly as valuable as he'd hoped. "Knowing what I know now, I think that culinary school, in general, kind of teaches the remedial basics to the median, and I felt like I had to demand a good education from the instructors," confesses Pierce, who graduated summa cum laude in 2005.
"This is my life, this is what I do, and I take it very, very seriously," he says about his new position at Euclid Hall. "I like being the keystone of what we've set up here, and I love that there are people falling in love with Euclid Hall, falling in love with food that they might be uncomfortable with" -- bone marrow and blood sausage, for example. "And I really love the fact that people are putting a fork in their poutines, even though it's a catastrophe to their body."
So far, it's been a tremendous ride for Pierce, but he's smart enough to know that the path to culinary greatness is a lifelong journey. He addresses that in the interview that follows -- where he also talks about fulfilling his dream, body parts, eggs and the egg hustler.
Six words -- or whatever -- to describe your food: My food is, to an extent, an attempt to shine a positive light on misunderstood ingredients like blood, marrow and organs. The focus of my kitchen is on creating thought-provoking food through the careful consideration of balance and depth. Everything we do is deliberately crafted to accomplish something.
Ten words -- or whatever -- to describe you: The first thing to being a good chef is being a leader, and I would best be described as a passionate leader. For me, the keys have been honesty, confidence, staying real and remaining excited about what I do. I think of myself as progressive and motivated, and I'd describe myself as an analytical mathematician, in the business sense, and a thoughtful artist in the realm of all things edible.
Culinary inspirations: I'm deeply inspired by chefs like Marco Pierre White, for his no-nonsense technique, and Joël Robuchon for his roots and fundamental teachings. I'm also inspired by chef Raymond Blanc of Le Manoir aux Quat'Saisons in Great Milton, England, for taking in a rough-edged and brilliantly green culinary student and turning on the light of inspiration.
Favorite ingredient: Eggs. They're a formidable platform on which to demonstrate technique on a beautifully balanced blank canvas.
Best recent food find: Slightly thick foie gras hollandaise, which was the result of a ten-ounce rendered foie trimmed and substituted for butter in the classic preparation. It could be the best-textured and most flavorful sauce I've ever had.
Most overrated ingredient: Can it be equipment-related? The technology of programmable ovens and thermo-circulated meats is fucking up the art of cuisine. I would much prefer to burn a duck the old-fashioned way than have an oven tell me when it's right. And who wouldn't prefer a real grilled steak to a vacuum-bagged one?
Most underrated ingredient: Codfish in any version. It's super versatile, cheap, clean and appropriately fishy-tasting. What do you have to say about that, Mr. "Ida-sea" rainbow trout?
Favorite local ingredient and where you get it: Pulling eggs from the chicken coop at the vegetable stand between Applewood Golf Course and Coors Brewery along 32nd Avenue yields some of the best and most delicious local huevos. There's a sign that just says, "Fresh Fruit and Vegetables" in front of a dirt driveway. You take a right at the driveway, follow it down and park on the left. You'll know when you're there by all the chickens running around. The eggs are the bomb, and the guy who runs it raises the chickens and lets them die naturally.
Favorite spice: Salt. Without it, there would be no Great Wall in China, no bacalao and no blanching water. Life would be dismal.
One food you detest: I detest all things fast-food. I'm down with late-night sandwiches and pizza, but as for the moisture-injected cardboard between ketchup-spackled bleach buns, they can go to hell. You're screwing up palates nationwide.
One food you can't live without: I can't live without herbs. They fill a special niche in the seasoning world. Add them early for development, later for clarity, and à la minute for brightness and intensity.
Biggest kitchen disaster: A 120-cover soft opening at Euclid Hall. It's 10 a.m., I've got twenty cooks surrounding me who have no idea about the ensuing onslaught, and we've got thirty new dishes, four new stations, an all-new floor staff and a new wheel for the chef man. An hour later, we're 37 tickets deep, all of which are for four-tops ordering six to nine items per ticket. I remember it all in small flashes surrounded by darkness, like a bad car accident.
What's never in your kitchen? Green bell peppers. C'mon, why do they still sell them? They suck.
What's always in your kitchen? Mushrooms. It's one food with outstanding variety.
Favorite dish to cook at home: Peking duck. The process that I use takes four days. In a discombobulated refrigerator, the duck will hang for nearly a week before it goes into a smoking hot oven, filling the world around you with that sweet therapeutic fragrance.
Favorite dish on your menu: My oyster po'boy is, as our guy Big Dave Foster says, "undisputed!"
What you'd like to see more of in Denver from a culinary standpoint: Whole carcass fabrication. If more chefs understood and respected the craft of butchery, it would be a hell of a lot easier to buy whole animals.
What you'd like to see less of in Denver from a culinary standpoint: Less pre-packaged and portioned proteins. This practice has become a crutch in the last few years, and I really feel strongly that every chef should be more concerned about the meat they serve rather than how many six-ounce portions come in a box.
Greatest accomplishment as a chef: Euclid Hall is my greatest achievement as a chef, by far. From running the business side to being the face for the food and creating a family here, from the people who walk in the front door to those who come in through the back, it's been like the realization of a goal and the fulfillment of a dream in a lot of ways. This is a goal that's been a culmination of the last seven years.
Hardest lesson you've learned: Early in chefdom, I realized that some people are born leaders and others have to work for it. I had to work for it. The lessons that followed have become never-ending. I'm constantly changing and becoming a better, more effective and efficient version of myself.